Tonight, I put out my trash and my recycling. What will happen to it tomorrow morning when the workers come pick it up? Almost no one thinks about this. Especially when it comes to recycling, we are convinced of our own good behavior to an extent that we usually assume that something goods come of it. But the reality is that these are hard, nasty jobs with employers who often heavily exploit the workers and provide highly unsafe working conditions. The Teamsters have organized some waste workers, but many remain unorganized. This report on waste workers in New York, where you have a panoply of private companies who contract with the city and therefore a mix of union and non-union shops, is pretty disturbing.
IN THE BEST SCENARIO, A WASTE collector will suffer chronic back pain, joint fatigue and sleep deprivation. In the worst, his life is what Thomas Hobbes might have called “nasty, brutish and short.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists refuse collection, both public and private, as one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in America based on fatalities, far more than those of police or firefighters. When one accounts for physical degradation and quality of life, the statistics become far more perilous.
New York City’s Department of Sanitation is among the most respected in the country. Its workers, who are Teamsters, work no more than eight hours a day, are paid close to $80,000 a year and enjoy generous benefit packages. They collect 10,500 tons of refuse each day from city residents and institutions.
In comparison, the private carting industry in New York City is a largely unregulated enterprise where more than 100 carting companies, large and small, compete to pick up the refuse of 100,000 businesses. In one night, some 20 trucks from different companies could visit a single city block, bringing with them all the concomitant emissions, traffic and safety concerns.
“AS A WORKER, YOU ARE TREATED like the truck. You are treated like a machine,” said Carl Orlando, a former sanitation worker for Liberty Ashes who says he has worked in all aspects of the industry, from hauling garbage to office work to customer relations. He and several former co-workers have sued the company, accusing it of wage theft and other pay violations.
“There’s no training. There’s no safety meetings. There’s no gear. There is no taking days off. There’s no benefits. They don’t even pay overtime,” he said.
He, like others, stressed that not all private waste companies are the same, and that they vary widely in how they treat workers. But in his experience, the so-called “low-road” companies routinely put workers’ safety in jeopardy.
Like many workers in the industry, Orlando said he was paid for a fixed number of hours no matter how long he worked — something he and others say incentivizes dangerous habits. He said he was paid for a 10-hour day but routinely had to work 12-, 13-, even 14-hour shifts to complete his route.
“You want to get through it as quick as possible, because you don’t want that truck on the road as people are trying to go to work, and you have one truck out there trying to do the work of three,” Orlando said. “I’ve driven all night, didn’t stop for any red lights, went from one side of the street to the other, on the wrong side of the street, and I still couldn’t get it done.”
Wage theft is a common accusation against such companies. Three other workers — Marco Flores, Antonio Santos and Oscar Tudon — filed a class-action lawsuit against Five Star in July 2015 for unpaid wages.
The suit alleges the men “were not paid overtime premium pay for hours worked over forty (40) hours per week, did not receive wages for all hours worked, had meal breaks automatically deducted from their wages regardless of whether they actually took the full break, did not receive prevailing wages when they worked on public works projects, did not receive wage notice or proper wage statements.”
Workers say the companies have other means of skirting their obligations, too.
Juan Feliz worked for Mr. T’s Carting for close to 10 years. In 2013, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer. He now speaks through a voicebox after surgery left a hole in his trachea.
After his diagnosis and first surgery, Feliz said his bosses treated him differently.
“When I went back to the company, I was treated worse than the garbage I was supposed to pick up,” he said.
Feliz said the company asked him to change doctors. Then he said the boss, Peter Toscano, told him he would have to wait for further treatment.
“Toscano said I had to wait until next year because I had exhausted my funds,” Feliz said.
As his medical bills piled up, Mr. T’s Carting suddenly asked Feliz to do something it never had before: take an off-site drug test. He typically took drug tests on site, according to a judge’s ruling.
He agreed to the off-site test, but it was scheduled for a cold day in January. As Feliz tried to get to the facility, he had trouble breathing. Blood started pouring from his tracheal tube, and he canceled the appointment. He rescheduled again, but when he arrived there was a long wait, and he left to pick up his 9-year-old daughter from school.
Mr. T’s fired him, accusing him of refusing to take the drug test. When he tried to collect unemployment, the company rejected his claim. Feliz filed an appeal.
Better conditions for these workers should be part of our civic responsibility. They are picking up our trash and recycling. We owe it to them that they don’t get hurt or die doing it.